ArchivalGossip goes Podcast!

Bit of news: I’ve recently been invited to join the always great LadyFiction-Podcast to talk with Dr. Stefanie Schäfer about (transatlantic) gossip in periodicals (e.g. the writing of Anne Hampton Brewster, from whose “American Artists in Rome” my opening quote is taken) – of course, Charlotte Cushman also made an appearance!

In this special Women’s History Month episode, Stefanie Schäfer discusses gossip with American Studies scholar Katrin Horn, head of the research project Following the trajectories of American artists in Rome, and specifically the making of actress Charlotte Cushman’s celebrity persona, they read the functions of gossip in 19th-century US magazines between the intimate and the political, between escapism and nation building, and they also ponder the question of how gossip became gendered.

Session summary by Trans-Atlanticist

You can listen or download here!

Speculative Endeavors

Online conference organized by Katrin Horn, Karin Hoepker, and Selina Foltinek at the University of Bayreuth, Oct 21-23, 2021

Visit the conference’s website here

We may be a bit late with our comment on the project’s conference but not less enthusiastic about its outcome! From October 21-23, 2021, the Speculative Endeavors Conference eventually took place virtually. Last year, we postponed our event in the hope we might meet in person in 2021. Early this year, we made the call that it might be wiser (and safer) to move the conference online. And, sure, the missed conversations over coffe and in the hallways put a little damper on things. In the end, however, we were simply happy to finally meet those people virtually who had sent their fantastic abstracts on a wide range of topics in 2019. The conference planning had certainly come a long way!

Speculative Endeavors examined cultures of knowledge and capital in the US during the long nineteenth century. In particular, presentations focused on illicit, tacit, oral, unofficial, or subjugated knowledges. In the century of the rise of Wall Street, the increasing incorporation of America, and the experience of economic volatility, people sought potential “insider knowledge” about the machinations of markets, and different knowledges competed in times of heightened uncertainty. Practices of speculation, covert informational labor, and related mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion closely regulated access to and speculative value of such knowledge. Heike Paul, the director of the Bavarian American Academy (BAA), kindly offered to start off the conference with a few words on the contemporary context of the the conference topic. As chairs, Sylvia Mayer, Regina Schober, Birte Christ, and Jana Keck guided our speakers and all participants through the panels to align the panelists’ long, pre-circulated papers and short, 7-min Zoom talks. This format allowed us to have extensive, 60min-Q&As which lay the focus on dialogue and exchange, which for us are central to the value of conference. We couldn’t be happier with how all our participants were willing to committed to making this format work! Conference presentations were given by twelve speakers from the US, UK, Austria, and Germany. They covered topics from the areas of rumor & speculation, disenfanchised knowledge (institutions), the trade of private knowledge, and knowledge production in the so-called private sphere.

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Methods and Manuscripts: On Pursuing American Studies in the Archive

GAAS 2021 paper on working with manuscripts (when that’s not what you’ve been trained to do)

With a slight delay, I’d like to add here the talk I gave recently at the 2021 Annual Conference of the German Association for American Studies as part of a panel on “Dispatches from the Method Wars: New Approaches to Cultural Agency and Participation in American Studies” (June 18, 2021). The CfP spurred some reflections on how my current research on gossip in the nineteenth century and my prior project on camp in contemporary culture have similar “issues,” when it comes to some of the methods or scholarly ideals of American Studies. More precisely: the paper was an opportunity for me to think through “being too close” and “too much participation.”

(I hope you’re not coming here looking for anwers, because I mostly had questions).

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Transatlantic Women’s Letter Writing of the 19th and early 20th Century (#BAAS2021)

incl. my Paper on:
Business and Intimacy in the Correspondence of Charlotte Cushman and James T. & Annie Fields

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure to chair a panel together with the incomparable Dr. Laura Rattray at this year’s digital conference of the British Association for American Studies. And what can I say, I had an absolute blast!

Here’s a rundown of our panel on Transatlantic Women’s Letter Writing of the 19th and early 20th Century, and below that my paper in full.

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Blog Series: Working on Intimate Knowledge with Archival Documents (3/3)

Concluding Remarks

The Archive as a Space that Actively Shapes Narratives

Further problems that we have encountered were that parts of letters may be missing, letter pages may be assembled in the wrong order or they were assigned to the wrong historical agent (LoC, CCP 10: 3004-3007). Transcribing the documents, we noticed from time to time that a folder contains other senders or addressees as those indicated on the compiled folders. In such cases, it is important to question the arrangement of historical documents by the archives/archivists. Dever et al. remind us that the archive is a space that constructs narratives based on the knowledge that archivists have about the collections and their comprised documents:

[A]ny contemporary discussion of archival research must begin by acknowledging the epistemological pressure placed upon the concept of ‘the archive’ in recent years. This pressure has marked a turn away from the positivist understanding of archival repositories as being mere storehouses of records, toward considering the status of the archive as a significant element in our investigations. Ann Laura Stoler characterises this shift as the ‘move from archive-as-source to archive-as-subject’. […] [Jane Taylor’s] conclusion–that the archive is ‘at once a system of objects, a system of knowledge and a system of exclusion’–points to the profoundly constructed and deeply political nature of the archive, challenging many hitherto basic assumptions about ‘archival fixity and materiality’.

(Dever et al. 105, 118-119)

Critiquing her own use of private documents and tacit knowledge in archival documents, Sally Newman challenges her own position as a researcher to discuss her initial research focus and the assumptions with which she worked on the material at first, oscillating between nostalgia and fantasy. She researched in the Smith College archive to investigate same-sex desire:

I was drawn by their colour and materiality, even as it seemed there was something other-worldly about the splashes of brilliant blue that lit up the dour grey pages of the thick leather-bound books in which students immortalised their college experiences. This paradoxical presence/absence only heightened my desire for these objects and allowed me to indulge in the fantasy of seeing through these miniature portals into another time and place. I enjoyed the delight that was obvious on students’ faces in their playful mugging for the camera at ‘Mock Weddings’, which seemed to capture the spirit of this progressive ‘Adamless Eden’ that I was experiencing vicariously as I worked my way through the archive.

(Newman 153)

Newman concludes that her “desire (for these objects, for what they represented for my project) had prevented … [her] from seeing that these artefacts were linked by something more obvious: the desire to memorialise experiences and culture” (Newman 157). She calls for using the term ‘archive’ in the pural since what researchers make of the material they encounter is exposed to interpreting skills coming from all sorts of different angles: “There is no single archive because readers will construct their own ‘archive’ from the artefacts they choose to highlight, ignore or pass over” (Newman 155). Hence, our online archive and exhibits are a particular way of storytelling. The Omeka collection is constantly evolving in terms of size and specificity. In the DFG project, we trace gossip as a form of knowledge production and circulation in auto/biographical writing (both published and private) to investigate women’s (individual and communal, secret and shared) strategies in dealing with socio-cultural forces of financial speculation, the re-evaluation of privacy, and new forms of participation in the public sphere. For the Omeka collection, we have focused on actress Charlotte Cushman so far. The collected and digitized material is not limited to documents that explicitly mention gossip. The collection comprises

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Blog Series: Working on Intimate Knowledge with Archival Documents (2/3)

Working with or Deciphering Archival Documents

Dever et al. point out that the demonizing of gaps in archival research nurtures the illusion of some kind of coherent history that can be discovered:

The challenge […] becomes one of how to read and work with these fragments, given that, as researchers, ‘we are generally dismayed by the gaps that fragments expose, and try to fill them’. We often harbour an insistent (deeply suppressed and often denied) desire to find in our archival sources a whole where there can only ever be random parts, to perform acts of reconstitution in the service of producing a coherent and seamless account of our subject. […] How, then, do we live with – and work with – the patterns of knowing and not knowing thrown up by these sources … .

(Dever et al. 100–01)

It is tough to cast this urge to find the ‘truth’ (the ‘full historical truth’) aside, since it is difficult to accept that we may never know it or, in fact, that there was never such a truth. What researchers can achieve, however, is a process of sense-making of fragments in the archives, which gives a voice to often forgotten historical agents and presents new perspectives on historical events, lives, and constellations. This being said, do not let me deceive you, it is an ongoing struggle to happily coexist with the fragments. How often have we desperately hoped for a historical document that explains it all to magically pop up? Too many times. How often will that happen again in the next months? Way too often. Sometimes, we were successful and it is those times that stick with us. They keep us going to dig deeper. In doing so, we were facing several issues of working with and deciphering archival documents.

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But wait, there’s more! (Cushman-related material online)

Did you come here looking for something that you did not find? Are your research travels cancelled and you’re looking for other ways to stay busy? Or were you simply so intruiged by our Cushman-collection that you want to read even more about this fascinating actress? Either way: you’re in luck! Thanks to Cushman’s large social network, letters sent and received by her, and numerous other texts that mention her are widely available in other digital archives.

So, in the hope that it might proof useful to some fellow American studies folks, celebrity studies people, (gender) historians, and who else might profit from nineteenth-century primary material, here’s a collection of digital sources we have relied on repeatedly in our own research.
(Stay tuned for updates, and get in touch, if you have any questions!)

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Attic to Archive

On the Provenance of the Charlotte Cushman Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Loose Letters from Charlotte Cushman Papers

Much of the material I read for our research project (letters, diary entries) is of a very private nature. This raises ethical concerns as well as methodological issues:

But what does it mean to begin to sift the available traces of someone’s life? Where do the boundaries lie between private lives and public scrutiny? […] How do we make sense of surviving traces of their private lives that have found their way into public archives? What protocols govern scholarly attention to these particular aspects of the archival record?

Dever, Maryanne, et al. “The Intimate Archive.” Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 38, no. 1, May 2010, pp. 94–137.

It also raises very practical questions – some of which struck me immediately upon sitting down in front of one bound book of Charlotte Cushman’s personal correspondence (decyphering the handwriting, storage of data), some of which took a while to dawn on me. Most importantly:

How did these letters get here???

Box 1, Charlotte Cushman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
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History Of Knowledge

Blog Post on Gossip

After my research stay at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, last spring, the editors of their History of Knowledge-Blog kindly invited me to contribute a blog post on gossip’s relevance to studying the history of knowledge.

My thoughts on gossip, queer history, and archives entitled “An Intimate Knowledge of the Past? Gossip in the Archives” can be found here.

Besides some theoretical observations about what defines gossip and how we know history, the post also has ALL the drama of Charlotte Cushman’s most notorious break-up.